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Cash-starved libraries dabble in second-hand books
Andrew Carnegie must be turning in his grave. The Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist - an avid reader and supporter of the view that help should be focused on the industrious, ambitious and those most anxious to help themselves - gave money to build more than 2,500 libraries across the world in the final years of the nineteenth century and early part of the twentieth. Outside virtually every one of them was a lamp-post or lantern, meant as a symbol of the enlightenment that could be achieved within.
Ninety years after Carnegie's death, public libraries are under threat as never before. Seen as 'soft targets' at a time when public authorities are under pressure to make deep cuts in their spending, many libraries are either being handed to volunteers or closed altogether. In the UK, for example, the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy reported a drop of nearly 1,000 in the number of paid library staff in the 12 months to March 2010, a 3.4% fall to a total of just under 25,000. The number of volunteers rose 7.7%, to 17,111, over the same period.
Libraries themselves are looking at ways they can hold down spending without having to cut their opening hours or reduce their service to users. In Volume 23, Issue 3 of The Bottom Line: Managing Library Finances, published in 2010, Staley and Palo report that Renton Technical College Library, in the US state of Washington, has substantially expanded the range and quantity of resources it can collect by purchasing used materials. Meanwhile, in the same issue of The Bottom Line, Calvert describes a less successful initiative among six public libraries in New Zealand, which put withdrawn books up for sale via online auction sites. Tapping a national market in this way did realize better prices than in-house sales, but not all the books sold and staff costs were often higher than the revenue raised.
If flogging second-hand library books on the internet stands at one end of the spectrum for the disposal of public assets, putting whole islands up for sale must be close to the opposite extreme. In the October 2010 issue of Bloomberg Businessweek, Copetas describes how the Greek government -which owes its creditors €400 billion by 2012 and faces monthly debt payments totalling €4 billion - is contemplating selling prized assets including a vast portfolio of real estate. Few of Greece's 6,000 sun-soaked islands are entirely owned by the government. Most are in private hands. But the government benefits from sales through tax revenue and development, which create jobs and attract tourists. 'As a result,' says Copetas, 'the state is involved in all aspects of any transaction, from authorizing a deal to regulating every detail of who might buy a property and how much they will pay.'
The trouble is that while the government in theory favours sales, they are being stymied by red tape, obfuscation and corruption. A particular problem is that no one knows exactly who owns what, despite abortive attempts by the European Union in 1994 to create a land-record office.
Copetas quotes the example of a Monaco-based investment company that offered €120 million for Patroklos Island, a barren, 1,000-acre strip. The company had guarantees worth €15 billion to build casinos, golf courses, luxury accommodation and a marina. All it needed to start was a letter promising government help to overcome the bureaucracy. The tourism minister gave a verbal assurance, but the letter never arrived.